Strengthening Checks and Balances

House Report Highlights Need for Inspector General Nominations

This weekend marked a notable anniversary for the Department of the Interior—but not exactly one worth celebrating.

It’s been four years since the Department’s Inspector General (IG) stepped down, and the position has been vacant—filled only with an acting IG—ever since. This means the watchdog office overseeing the department that manages the nation’s public lands and natural resources has been rendered toothless for over 1,400 days. And a new report from Congress gives us indications of why this matters.

Holding Interior Watchdog Accountable, a report released last week by Republican members of the House Natural Resources Committee, illustrates why strong permanent IGs are so important and why having an acting IG in power for years can compromise the most basic standards of the Offices of the Inspector General (OIG).

When the famously “assertive” Interior IG Earl Devaney stepped down in February 2009, Mary Kendall took over as acting IG. At a Natural Resources Committee hearing when Kendall was asked about her future at the OIG she explicitly stated: “I have an interest in being nominated and confirmed.”

As the House report notes, independence is key for a successful IG, yet the very nature of the acting position makes independence from the Administration or department nearly impossible. Kendall and all acting IGs are placed in the difficult position of investigating and exposing the very people who are key to their professional futures. Although the position is presidentially appointed, traditionally, the heads of agencies are also involved in the vetting and approval of IGs.

Jeff Ruch, executive director of advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, explained the problem that was highlighted in the House report. “As an acting IG, Mary Kendall’s tenure depends upon pleasing the very people she is supposed to investigate. As a result, this watchdog is not just on a very tight leash, it is on a choke chain. To be effective and remain independent, an IG must be willing on a daily basis to get canned or resign if the mission is compromised.”

According to the House report, many of Kendall’s employees in the OIG questioned her independence. The report specifies:

According to the IG’s employee satisfaction survey for 2012, only 59 percent of IG employees agreed or strongly agreed that “[t]he OIG conducts its work in a manner that is independent (free from improper influence) from the Department. According to the same survey results, a number of employees have raised questions about the IG’s independence and whether the IG has become overly deferential to the Department.

Editing Away the Truth?

Following 2010’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Kendall and some of her OIG staff joined an Interior investigation which resulted in the “30-Day Safety Report.” The first mistake was for an IG to participate in an agency investigation of this crisis instead of simply doing its own investigation. The report recommended halting drilling operations in the Gulf for six months, saying the recommendation had been peer-reviewed by seven engineering experts.

According to the House report, in the days following the release of the safety report, several of the quoted experts came forward to say that they had not, in fact, supported the moratorium. The Interior IG opened an investigation into this discrepancy, with senior special agent Richard Larrabee as the lead investigator. The problem created by the Acting IG being a party to the investigation deepened with the need for the OIG to now evaluate the integrity of that work.

The House report alleges that Kendall’s editing of the Larrabee report attempted to conceal the highly irregular investigative procedure he was ordered to follow. For example, she struck a sentence that noted that OIG could not validate that emails used as evidence in the report were “complete and unedited.”

According to the House report, Larrabee later wrote to a fellow OIG employee, “You know my feelings about our failure to independently validate the emails, and now I think we further exacerbated the issue by editing this [report] in a way that could be open to criticism as being an attempt to obscure this fact.”

There is currently an Integrity Committee of the Council of Inspectors General for Integrity and Efficiency investigation into this and other allegations. Whatever the outcome, the questions raised about Kendall’s independence further underscores the problems created by leaving the IG position vacant.

So, Where Are All the Watchdogs?

This cautionary tale exposes the broader ongoing problem: Interior is not the only agency missing its strong, independent investigative watchdog. Currently, the federal government has seven other vacant IG positions, including the Department of Defense (just over a year without an IG), the Department of Homeland Security (two years without an IG), and the Department of State (a staggering five years without an IG). The Project On Government Oversight’s “Where Are All The Watchdogs?” page tracks these vacancies and any IG nominations.

Permanent IGs are by no means a magic fix. They too face difficult political pressures from Congress, the public, and the heads of the agencies they must oversee. But their positions are no longer subject to the whims of the Administration.

Given the kinds of problems created by leaving these vacancies open, what will it take to get the White House to focus on this problem?